Adelaide United players celebrating Ben Halloran's stoppage time equaliser against Melbourne City. (Image: Adelaide United)

Despite high expectations, Adelaide United's star-studded midfield is not firing yet in 2021/22. So how can the Reds make it work?

Five games into the 2021-2022 Isuzu A League Season and Adelaide United are still without a win. Despite being in every game, it has not felt like the team has clicked yet and it all starts in the midfield.

A quick look at the club’s midfield and accomplished names of the competition stand out such as Isaias, Juande and Stefan Mauk. Alongside them, promising youngsters like Louis D’Arrigo, Bernardo and Joe Caletti.

On paper, Adelaide United has managed to out-possess each of its opponents in the first five games of the season, but a midfield’s job extends much further than just keeping the ball.

To understand United’s midfield woes, we need to understand the structure of your typical Adelaide United midfield. For years, United has played with primarily three midfielders in the centre of the park with three different roles:

  • The defensive midfielder (‘The 6’): Shields the backline, wins possession, picks up the ball deep from the defensive players and distributes.
  • The box-to-box midfielder (‘The 8’): Links defence to attack, high energy, combative, dynamic, well-rounded, helps where needed.
  • The attacking midfielder (‘The 10’): A free role between the midfield and the attack. Charged with unlocking the defence with killer balls and/or scoring themselves.

The current state of the Adelaide United midfield

In the first four games, United started with Isaias as a ‘6,’ Louis D’Arrigo as an ‘8’ and Stefan Mauk as a ’10.’

In the away fixture against Western United, Isaias remained as a ‘6’ along with Mauk as a “10.” Juande replaced D’Arrigo at the ‘8’ position.

The 6: Isaias needs no introduction. A fantastic shield to a backline, sets the tempo to every game and the team looks a lot more composed with him in it.

The 10: Stefan Mauk, the captain, originally an “8,’ Mauk was asked to step up as the creative midfielder last season after the late departure of James Troisi.

Despite not being his natural spot, Mauk had a great first half of the year before sustaining and playing out the season with a broken fibula. Despite not being your classic ’10,’ he showed the attacking nous and prowess required by an attacking midfielder.

The 8: The position United needs to revisit. Louis D’Arrigo started off the season in this position.

Before this season, D’Arrigo had mostly played in the ‘6’ position which suits his game perfectly. With two games to go in the 2020/21 season, D’Arrigo had made a league leading 46 interceptions (via OptaJason) a huge stat for an at the time 19-year-old defensive anchor.

Despite his excellence as a defensive midfielder, being a box-to-box midfielder is a totally different proposition.

D’Arrigo possesses an excellent engine which is needed for the role, but has only recently started to develop his attacking instinct. He has the long-term potential to be an ‘8,’ but currently his best position is by far and away the ‘6’.

Juande, at 35 years of age, is on the opposite spectrum of his career. Similarly, to D’Arrigo, he is best suited to the defensive mid slot.

It is too early to judge if Juande and Isaias can co-exist in the same midfield. Like D’Arrigo, Juande’s best spot in the United midfield is the ‘6’.

That creates a logjam of three fantastic players vying for one spot. The alternative is one learning how to be effective out of his comfort zone.

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The alternatives

Can Adelaide United persist with those options? They need to start chalking up wins to stay in touch with the competition.

Below are some potential options to rejuvenate the box-to-box midfielder position.

Option 1 – Josh Cavallo

Possibly the best option of the bunch.

Josh Cavallo was signed by the Club as a midfielder, but was converted to a full back out of necessity, and quickly became quite a capable one too.

If we look back to the start of his Adelaide United career, Cavallo played his first five games in the midfield in the ‘8’ slot.

He started off his first two games coming off the bench against the Wanderers and Jets. After two encouraging cameos, Cavallo was given a starting 11 slot, once again as the ‘8’ for the next three games against the Victory, Jets and Sydney FC.

What do all those five games have in common? Adelaide United claimed all three points on all five occasions. Cavallo added a different dimension to an already strong midfield with Louis D’Arrigo at its base (a ‘6’) and Mauk at its head (a ’10’).

In the next game, Cavallo was asked to deputise at fullback for the injured Javi Lopez, and United lost 2-1 away to the Mariners.

This move would result in Ryan Kitto filling in at left back, where he has shown in the past that he is a competent option for the position.

Option 2 – Stefan Mauk

As most Adelaide United fans are aware, Stefan Mauk has not always been a ‘10’.

Back in the 2015/16 season, United faced a similar predicament to the one we face today. A tenacious defensive midfielder in Isaias and a brilliant creator in Marcelo Carrusca where the cornerstones of the midfield.

In the ‘8’ position, United fans were witnessing a defensive midfielder in Jimmy Jeggo who was slowly discovering his attacking prowess. After a slow start at United, Jeggo was coming into his own and fitting nicely into the midfield.

That was all taken away when Europe came knocking in the form of Austrian club, Sturm Graz. Adelaide United managed to give up centre back/defensive midfielder Osama Malik for dynamic South Australian Mauk from Melbourne City.

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Mauk fit in seamlessly in the midfield, with highlights including scoring a scintillating goal against the Mariners, a strong performance against his former employers in City, while helping United to the premiership and finally lifting the Championship in front of 50,000 people at Adelaide Oval. He later secured his own European move.

The concern with Mauk reclaiming his ‘8’ slot is the gaping hole that would leave in the ‘10’ position with the only logical replacement there being 17 year old Bernardo, who has played that role to a good standard in the NPL.

While capable, United would be wise to continue integrating Bernardo gradually into the main side.

Other potential options

Nathan Konstandopoulos is currently recovering from his second ACL tear. Before his injury, he looked like the dynamic, well rounded midfielder that United could use right now.

George Blackwood was occasionally deployed in the midfield by Marco Kurz and Gertjan Verbeek, and provided a good dynamic alternative with his dribbling and ball movement.

Jonny Yull and Ethan Alagich have both debuted for the club. Both are still just teenagers, but are coming off solid NPL seasons. They could play a role, but their development must be managed carefully.

Whichever option the coaching staff decides to go with, it is a decision that requires decisiveness and urgency that will shape the club’s season.

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